Stephen Harper said there was nothing unusual about his office's efforts to influence the appointment of a new president at the Montreal Port Authority in 2007, but other leaders accused the Conservatives of condoning political interference.
Ignoring concerns raised by a former minister and members of the board at the port, Mr. Harper said his spokesman and other Conservative officials had every right to promote the candidacy of Montreal engineer Robert Abdallah.
"It's normal," Mr. Harper said. "The government [expressed its preference] the board took another decision. We respect that decision; we work with the board and that president."
But the leaders of the Liberal Party, the Bloc Québécois and the NDP said the repeated efforts by Dimitri Soudas, Mr. Harper's long-time spokesman, and other Conservative officials to secure Mr. Abdallah's nomination were a clear patronage attempt.
Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe said the interventions, revealed by The Globe and Mail and Radio-Canada, went against the Canada Marine Act that states that the selection of the port's president is up to the board of directors.
"This is a troubling matter, we're talking about pressure, threats and lies," Mr. Duceppe told reporters. "This is called interfering in a decision-making process."
One of the issues that generated controversy on the campaign trail was the fact that Mr. Soudas denied meeting board members on the matter of Mr. Abdallah's candidacy in front of a parliamentary committee in 2008.
However, he is now acknowledging meeting board members at a restaurant in Montreal, where Mr. Abdallah's candidacy was promoted.
"There's a possibility that he lied under oath, and that's a big problem," said Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. "A lack of respect towards institutions is something that happened more than once. So the voters will decide about this."
Conservative officials said Mr. Soudas and the Conservative government promoted Mr. Abdallah's candidacy well after the initial preference was expressed, especially as it became clear that he did not make the board's shortlist.
NDP Leader Jack Layton blasted the Conservatives for failing to get rid of patronage, despite their promises before coming to power in 2006.
"The result is that we end up with the same old pork-barrelling approach to the appointment of friends by the government," Mr. Layton said. "And clearly this is an example, and a case in point."
The Conservatives have yet to explain how they determined favouring Mr. Abdallah as president of the port. Controversial construction industry boss Antonio Accurso was also supportive of Mr. Abdallah's candidacy, as was Montreal councillor Frank Zampino, sources said.
Michael Fortier, the minister of public works at the time of the appointment, said his office contacted port officials and urged them to disregard any political pressure.
"I asked my office to send the message that the Prime Minister did not have a preferred choice and that the selection of a new president was up to the board of directors and its members," Mr. Fortier said.
The former chairman of the board at the port, Marc Bruneau, said board members grew testy as Mr. Soudas promoted Mr. Abdallah's candidacy at the restaurant meeting.
"There certainly was interference, as they met us on the specific issue of the nomination of the new president," Mr. Bruneau said.
The board ultimately chose a different candidate, Patrice Pelletier, who was president of L-3 Communications SPAR Aerospace Ltd.
With a report from Gloria Galloway